Ask Dr D; ‘Retrenchment has left my husband in a slump’

Q: My husband was retrenched recently and he’s taken it badly. He looked for a new job for a couple of weeks but then threw his hands in the air and said ‘I’m a pale, 40-something male, I’m never going to find another job’. He now spends most of his time watching TV in his pyjamas and it’s a struggle to get him to help me around the house. Meanwhile, I’ve found a job working as a receptionist at our GP’s rooms and I’m enjoying working again. As the festive season approaches I’m trying to ensure we have a good Christmas although I’ve warned my kids that they will be getting smaller presents this year. My husband seems determined to have a miserable time and I think he’s depressed. What can I do to get him out of this slump? His low mood is affecting the whole family.

A: A man’s self-esteem – in fact, make that his identity – is intrinsically connected to ‘production’. Worth is about competence and ‘bringing home the bacon’. Real men have good jobs and provide for their families. This is genetically preprogrammed from as far back as the caveman and, although roles today are more egalitarian, that basic belief remains entrenched. Because of this, in these tough economic times, there has been a huge escalation of depression in men, who feel vulnerable, inadequate and alone. Your husband is depressed. The characteristics are his low mood, his lack of motivation and a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. It is a reactive depression because the circumstances are clear but it’s the extent and duration that are worrying. One would think that he might be relieved to know that at least one of you is working and enjoying their job. But this is not the case because in his mind it shows him up as more of a ‘loser’ and serves to emasculate him.

Obviously this does not mean that you should give up your job and commiserate with him. Being less than the best you can be never helps anyone become more than they are. It is a tough world out there and it is more challenging than ever being ‘pale and male and 40-something’ but this does not mean it’s impossible. Let your husband know that you understand the obstacles and the challenges that he faces, but that he has held down a good job will do so again, as long as he doesn’t give up. ‘As you think, so shall you be’ is a truism that affects everything.

However, you do need to understand that your husband will probably not hear a word of this in his depressed state. Your priority is treatment for his depression. If he refuses to go for help, reassure him that the person he always was is still there, just buried temporarily, and you need and want him back. Let him know that you miss and love him irrespective of whether he has a job or not. Having said that, it is important that he is not fussy about what type of job he accepts at this stage; simply working will do wonders for his self-esteem. Choices can come later.

The festive season has the potential to intensify feelings of depression because we are inundated with images of families having plenty of fun and enjoying themselves. Tell your husband that, for your family, Christmas is about people and being together, not expensive presents. Believe it or not, his future with this condition is optimistic.